How to tell if an online product review is real or fake

Dear Consumer Ed:

How can I tell if an online review of a product is real or fake?

Consumer Ed says: 

Considering how easy it is for anyone to post an online review for potential customers to see, you’re right to be skeptical about the reliability of online product reviews.  Businesses understand that consumers’ purchase decisions are often swayed by user-generated online reviews.  Unfortunately, this has led some businesses to post positive reviews of their own products or services, and negative reviews of competitors’, while pretending to be real customers.  Other businesses have even incentivized consumers to write fake reviews in return for payment or discounts.  The Federal Trade Commission has tried to minimize fake reviews by imposing fines on those who post and/or pay for fake reviews.  The incentive to fabricate phony critiques remains high because the likelihood of getting caught is still unfortunately low. 

This Office has also pursued such parties for this kind of false advertising. However, it is often very difficult to distinguish between a legitimate review and a fraudulent review.  Many sites, like Amazon and Yelp, use multiple methods of analysis to detect fake reviews.  This helps to a degree, but is not foolproof.  However, there are other things you can do to filter through the fake reviews on your own:

Compare reviews not only within a site, but across different websites.  Read a lot of reviews to form an opinion about the site and decide whether it's trustworthy.  Then, compare reviews of the same product on other sites to determine an overall trend of reviews for a product.  You can't necessarily trust a handful of bad reviews or glowing reviews, but trends are much harder to fake. 

Compare reviews by the same reviewer. Look at other reviews by the same reviewer to help you decide how much trust to put in the opinions of that person.  Be wary of "one-time" or "first time" reviewers. Reviews by people who are verified by the site are more trustworthy than reviews by anonymous reviewers.  Anonymous reviews are far more suspect than a review that tells you who wrote it with brief biographical information.  Try to verify if the reviewer has actually purchased a product (e.g., an Amazon reviewer’s “Verified Purchaser” status indicates that the review was posted by someone who has actually purchased the product being reviewed through the site).

Be watchful for similar wording on reviews.  Legitimate reviewers usually speak specifically about their individual experience with the product, and discuss things like performance, reliability, and overall value.  So, if the reviews mainly list off product features, or if there are a number of reviews that use similar wording to describe the product, the reviews could be fake.

Be skeptical about "extreme" reviews.  If a reviewer makes over-the-top, extremely positive or negative comments, that should raise your suspicions.  Generally, most people will list one or two things they liked, along with something they may have been surprised by (whether positively or negatively).  But when the reviewer uses terms like "absolute worst" and "best ever," it’s worth checking out the reviewer before taking what he/she says as the gospel. In general, read reviews less for whether they give a product five stars or one star, and more for the specific information they give about the reviewer’s experience with the product.  

Check the business reputations of all merchants. Organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission maintain information about at least some reviewers and reviewed products.

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